Mike Bloomberg’s Charlottesville campaign office is cavernous—and, on a Wednesday afternoon with the Virginia primary less than two weeks away, totally empty. The ninth-richest man in the world set up shop across the street from Friendship Court, one of Charlottesville’s largest low-income housing neighborhoods, but it doesn’t seem to have led to any foot traffic. Bloomberg’s website says there’s a canvass scheduled, but the office is locked and dark.
Bloomberg is the only presidential candidate so far to establish a permanent physical location in Charlottesville ahead of March 3—Super Tuesday—when Virginians will head to the polls to cast their votes in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. (The Virginia Republican Party voted to cancel its primary, one of a handful of states to do so.)
A late entrant, Bloomberg has poured resources into Super Tuesday states like Virginia. But the race here is pivotal for any candidate hoping to stay in a field that will soon narrow. Virginia’s 99 delegates make it the fourth most valuable state out of the 18 to vote on March 3 or before.
Bekah Saxon, the co-chair of the Charlottesville Democratic Party, says Virginia’s mix of demographics makes the state especially useful as a tool for determining who might have nationwide success. “Virginia is a cross section of the country,” Saxon says. “We have urban areas, we have large numbers of recent immigrants who are now citizens, we have lots of young voters from all of the colleges we have, we have rural areas. It can be a real litmus test as to how the rest of the country is thinking.”
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton rolled through the Democratic primary in Virginia, taking the state with 65 percent of the vote to Bernie Sanders’ 35 percent. This time, though, polling suggests a much closer race. A mid-February poll from highly rated pollster Monmouth University showed Sanders taking 22 percent, Bloomberg 22 percent, and Joe Biden 18 percent of Virginia’s votes, with the rest of the field trailing far behind. The polling also suggests that many people in Virginia remain undecided about their choice in the Democratic field.
In 2016, despite Clinton’s strength statewide, Charlottesville asserted itself as one of Virginia’s most progressive enclaves—in the city, Sanders earned 4,483 votes to Clinton’s 3,889. With Sanders now considered a frontrunner by many, there’s nothing to suggest the senator from Vermont won’t turn in another strong performance in town.
Saxon says Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders have held the most events in Virginia, and seem the most organized in Charlottesville, despite none of them splurging on an office like Bloomberg.
The dynamic is similar over on UVA’s campus. “Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders seem to be the most institutionalized on Grounds,” says Kiera Goddu, president of the University Democrats. “All three have student groups just for that candidate.”
Some Charlottesville-area donors have been particularly active in the primary so far. The Virginia Public Access Project records individual donations made directly to campaigns. Progressive power-donor Sonjia Smith has cut $5,600 checks for both Buttigieg and Warren. Parke Capshaw, wife of real estate mogul Coran Capshaw, has given around $1,600 to Buttigieg and $3,400 to Sanders. Farther afield, it appears that Justin Vernon, frontman of the Wisconsin-based band Bon Iver, has an LLC registered in Charlottesville, and has given $2,800 to both Sanders and Warren from that address.
According to VPAP, Buttigieg has raised the most money in Virginia and raised the most from the Piedmont region, which includes Charlottesville and a few counties north of town.
November might feel like it can’t come soon enough, but March 3 will be the last stand for some campaigns that have come a long way. “I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be some campaigns that get suspended after Super Tuesday,” says Saxon.
Most of the students at Charlottesville High School aren’t old enough to vote—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t engaged.
CHS doesn’t have an official Young Democrats or Young Republicans club these days, but there are other groups around the school with a political bent. Jamila Pitre, one of the co-leaders of CHS’ Young Feminists club, is backing Bernie Sanders because of his commitment to “wealth equality, the Green New Deal, [and] his approach to foreign policy.”
Julianna Brown, the other leader of the club, is supporting Elizabeth Warren, due to “her more liberal economic plans” and “policy experience.”
Brown thinks most people in her organization support Sanders or Warren, but says “a lot of people are struggling to balance their own personal beliefs with electability.”
For example Lily Wielar, a senior, says she supports Joe Biden, because “he has the greatest chance of beating Trump.”
At the same time, others aren’t feeling so inspired by the slate of available candidates. Noelle Morris, the head of CHS’ Black Student Union, says she has “not been following the Democratic primary” and doesn’t know who the most popular candidate is for the students in her group. No matter who the nominee is, he or she will have to figure out how to get young people united and on board.